Since his playoff debut last month, coach Joe Mazzulla has faced four elimination games and the Celtics have won them all.
There’s a common thread in the victories. When the season is on the line the Celtics have found a way to crank up the defensive intensity. They’ve held their opponents to less than 100 points in all four elimination games.
“We have to keep our defensive presence, our defensive connectivity and our defensive execution,” Mazzulla said via conference call on Friday. “When we do those things, that’s when we’re at our best.”
The Celtics’ defense put a chokehold on Miami from the opening tip in Game 5 on Thursday night. Boston forced Miami to commit 16 turnovers, and benefited from good defense and hustle, which led to good looks on the offensive end.
For example, there was a play when Heat center Bam Adebayo caught the ball in the paint. He had Marcus Smart on him, which should be a mismatch based on their 6-inch height difference.
But Smart fronted the post until the entry pass was thrown, slid his feet behind Adebayo and gained sturdy footing so he could withstand a bump while Grant Williams came over to help. Adebayo dribbled the ball off his foot, Williams dived for the loose ball and hit Smart with a pass as he raced up the floor. Smart passed to Jayson Tatum, who swung the ball back to Smart, and he drilled an open 3-pointer.
However, maintaining that defensive focus has been a struggle for the Celtics.
The defensive issues reached a tipping point after the Game 3 loss at Miami, when Mazzulla said the team lost its defensive identity. Since those comments, the defense has been stellar, with crisp closeouts, aggressiveness on the glass, and timely rotations.
By the time they figured things out, the Celtics found themselves trailing in the series, 3-0. Mazzulla said he considers the team’s ability to band together with its back against the wall as a major strength.
The Celtics’ resiliency has them one win from forcing a decisive Game 7 at TD Garden.
“I think it’s the togetherness, the experience, the stuff that these guys have been through together throughout their careers,” Mazzulla said. “I just think for most people that have the relationships that these guys have, when things are hard they stick together.”
So far, desperation has fueled the Celtics. Their mistakes have yet to doom them. They’ve risen to the occasion when it has counted, and are still alive because of it.
“It’s the only choice we have,” Mazzulla said. “So, we’re just taking it one day at a time and understanding what we need to do to put ourselves in a position to win.”
Khari Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.